on Nov 24, 2008
Last week’s post on my arm ache (I’m not going to call it carpal tunnel, because I don’t actually know what it is, besides annoying and painful) spawned a side-conversation on the merits of the Dvorak keyboard layout. It turns out this is another Mac vs. PC or Xbox vs. PS3 issue:
- It’s totally better. Like, for sure.
- No way. Not better at all.
Great. Why are we still having this debate 72 years after the Dvorak layout was introduced? This disagreement over something easily quantified is kind of strange coming from the tech community. I can understand debates over acupuncture, herbal medicine, flavors of Linux, game consoles, and other things which have subjective quantities, differing user priorities, placebo effects, and multiple variables to be weighed. But when we’re talking about keyboard layouts we’re all comparing one quantity: Words Per Minute. It’s easily measured and not subject to user bias. Oh, this “feels” faster? You clock it on a stopwatch and look at the results. One study found no advantage, but it took existing professional typists and compared them after a couple of months. That’s not really reasonable or fair to take someone who’s been touch-typing QWERTY for a decade, give them a couple of months at Dvorak, and compare the speeds.
A real test would be to take two large groups of non-typists and teach one Qwerty and the other Dvorak. Every week we see little news tidbits about stupid studies (usually paid for by the government) that stun us with revelations like, “fat people eat more food than thin people” or “teenagers think about sex pretty often” or “unmarried men have more disposable income than same-age married couples with children”. We can find time to have scientists tell us the sky is blue, but in all these years nobody has ever sat down and really quantified the difference between Dvorak and QWERTY in a proper unbiased scientific study?
This wouldn’t, in and of itself, tell us if switching to Dvorak would be worth it for an individual or organization. That question is naturally going to be a fiendish one, but just having the WPM of QWERTY vs. Dvorak would go a long way to telling us if it was even worth thinking about.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.